Skip to main content

4 Tips for Keeping Politics Out of Staff Conversations

Analysis  |  By Lena J. Weiner  
   October 24, 2016

Avoiding divisive topics can help maintain workplace morale during a contentious election season—and afterward.

There are some things we would rather not know about the people we work with. Generally, it's a good idea to avoid complex health problems discussed in detail, intimate lives, and the intricacies of religious beliefs.

Then there are political views, especially during a bitter, divisive Presidential election season.

You shouldn't—and legally can't—officially try to stop employees from talking politics, says David Sanders, chief talent officer at Faegre Baker Daniels, an international law firm.

That doesn't mean such conversations should be encouraged, says Diane Gottsman, a national etiquette expert and owner of San Antonio-based Protocol School of Texas who has consulted on corporate etiquette and branding.

Gottsman urges extreme caution when conversations could turn political, both on ethical grounds and to ensure the comfort of all workers.

"Much like religion and other confidential, sensitive topics that are highly emotional or emotion-provoking, you should try to avoid the conversation," she says.

3 Ways a CDO Can Help a Hospital Workforce

Gottsman and Sanders offered the following tips for avoiding charged conversations.

1. Change the Subject

There are plenty of things to talk about that don't reference the current political climate and are unlikely to offend coworkers or patients, says Gottsman.

You can advise managers to try suggesting a different topic when they hear an employee bring up a candidate's recent antics or another controversial theme; a couple of non-offensive suggestions might include plans for Halloween or Bob Dylan's intriguing reaction to winning a Nobel Prize.

2. Make a Neutral Comment

You can also remain neutral without stating an opinion, says Gottsman, who suggests saying something like, "what interesting times!" and then moving on.

"The bottom line is that you're at work. You have a job to do, and a relationship with clients and coworkers. You're not there to be divisive," she says.

This can be especially important in a hospital, as you never know which patients and families could be offended—and lives could literally be on the line if a coworker relationship suffers.

3. It's OK to Bow Out

Sanders says no organization he's ever worked for has felt the need state a policy proactively, but employers should intervene when they hear an employee say something that sounds dismissive.

"You tell [the employee] that something that happened hurt somebody. It hurt how they felt about themselves, or how they felt others thought about them, and you ask them to stop doing that."

It's important to allow people to bow out of conversations if they seem to be getting uncomfortable, he adds.

4. Silence Isn't Always Agreement

It's also important that workers never assume that they know colleagues' or patients' political orientation or views, says Gottsman—and, above all, never assume that people agree if they aren't actively disagreeing with views a coworker is presenting, or are quiet.

"In fact, they may be forming a very strong opinion about that person, and it's not good."

Not Just Buzzwords

Our work lives don't occur in a vacuum. From time to time, controversial topics will make their way into the breakroom. When they do, it's natural that differences will come up, especially in a diverse work environment.

"I think the first rule is respect, and the second is consideration—and I think they're related," says Sanders. "That sometimes means asking people to keep that in mind."

So, if you hear a conversation that seems to be getting just a bit too heavy on the politics, it makes sense to remind employees that the election will be history on November 9—but relationships with coworkers and patients are here to stay.

"We have to remember that after the election, we all are going to be in the same spot, enjoying the same relationships as before," says Gottsman. 

For more about politics and the future of healthcare, attend the HealthLeaders Media webcastHow the 2016 Election Will Affect the Future Landscape of Healthcare Payment and Policy on Tuesday, October 25, 1pm – 2pm ET.   

Lena J. Weiner is an associate editor at HealthLeaders Media.

Tagged Under:

Get the latest on healthcare leadership in your inbox.